University of Minnesota’s Chicano Studies department turns 40


You might say Louis Mendoza tells a higher-education story of birth, survival and hope.

What he’s describing is the establishment 40 years ago of the Chicano Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, its efforts to hold steady against cold economic winds and its hope for the future.

Now more than ever, argues Mendoza, associate vice provost in the university’s Office for Equity and Diversity, Latino people need to be represented in the classrooms as well as academic fields of study at universities and colleges around the country, as they are here in Minnesota.

The story is in keeping with an event March 22 marking those four decades with a reception and round-table discussion among academics from California and the University of Minnesota.

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Their focus is on “Envisioning the Future of Chicano Studies” from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. today at the fourth floor of the Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. (It’s free and open to the public.)   

Besides the social justice aspects of America educating all its people and closing the academic achievement gaps between whites and students of color, consider the demographics, urges Mendoza, also Chicano Studies department chair.

Hispanics — which the U.S. Census uses as a broad category that includes Mexican-Americans — comprise the nation’s largest and fastest growing ethnic or race minority group in the country, more than 48.4 million people. Nationwide, that figures at about 16 percent of the U.S. population. In Minnesota it’s about 5 percent of the population. About 2 percent of University undergraduates are Latino.

“We continue to be a force to be reckoned with,’’ Mendoza says, maintaining that Latinos are a major market factor in terms of work force, entrepreneurship, buying power and votes.

Despite recent reports that 33 percent of Minnesota’s Hispanic children are poor,  Mendoza says he saw in a bicycle trip around the country in 2007 Latinos’ drive to succeed and their high level of social mobility. His first of two books on that trek, “Conversations Across Our America: Talking About Immigration and Latinoization,” comes out in May.

He says Latino children, who as a group lack educational success, need to be better-educated to be good citizens and good workers.

“You cannot just have one sector of the workforce educated and another not,’’ and the effort has to reach beyond K-12 education into post-secondary schools, says Mendoza.

Umbrella major

The university here, as with others around the nation, has faced economic pressures to close the department or combine the courses with those of other ethnic groups for an umbrella ethnic studies major. Those against such a move argue that each group is distinctly different.

Is there talk of such a move now? “It’s always there, especially with the economic crisis,” Mendoza says.

Still, the department appears to have a supporter in James A. Parente, Jr., dean of the College of Liberal Arts, who praises the department that was established following the 1960s Chicano Civil Rights Movement, with prodding from local Latino activists.

Says Parente: “This is an exciting moment in the field of Chicano and Latino studies, and our Chicano Studies department is playing a significant role in shaping this discipline for the future. This department has a history of path breaking interdisciplinary initiatives, and we are proud of the accomplishments of its faculty and staff.”

Become a sustaining member today

The small department, with courses taught by two fulltime faculty members, graduate students and adjunct professors, offers classes that focus on the history, art, culture, literature and social studies of persons of Mexican descent. In the last 40 years the department has graduated 130 majors and 110 minors.

Adds the head of CLA: “In addition to the critical role Chicano studies plays in the intellectual life of the College of Liberal Arts, we are particularly proud of the department’s long-time commitment to Minnesota’s Latino community, through service-learning, collaboration with community organizations, and academic support for students”

The department, Mendoza says, “…improves the climate of the university and creates a safe space” for Latino students.